15 years after its release, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna feels more of an opportunity missed to debate infidelity

Bollywood

15 years after its release, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna feels more of an opportunity missed to debate infidelity

Illustration: Arati Gujar

I have an unholy love for extramarital love stories. From The Bridges of Madison County to Arth and Silsila, there’s something about the yearning and secret intimacies of a romance outside marital strictures that I find hugely appealing. Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, which came out 15 years ago, was supposed to be a fresh, contemporary take on marriage, infertility, love beyond age, and two wounded people finding comfort in each other that they could not find with their respective spouses. And yet, when I’m watching it in 2021, far older and more cantankerous than I was when it first came out, the notion of the film being a missed opportunity continues to hold.

Let me be fair and say that in 2006, the film was a fairly bold step. There was Amitabh Bachchan as an elderly widower with a lusty zest for life. There was Preity Zinta, a driven, successful career woman determined to make her marriage work. And there were the two least likeable characters – the affair-havers themselves – played by Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji. Stuck in marriages they don’t want, drowning in their own bitterness, they turn to each other, ostensibly in a collaborative effort to save their respective marriages. Ultimately, it turns into a love of sorts, a love that after several teary, dramatic turns, comes to fruition.

I was 21 when KANK released. Not quite at the height of my teenage tendresse for SRK, but close. But all the slow-motion walks and arms-open-wide shots, ironically, couldn’t convince me that Dev and Maya, the characters he and Rani play, needed to be together, against all odds.

It’s hard to root for a pair who seem to turn to each other and say, ‘Let’s be unhappy together forever.’

The banter between Amitabh Bachchan and Kirron Kher is warm and enjoyable; the familiarity and friendship between Abhishek Bachchan and Mukherji, right till the end of their marriage and afterwards, feels genuine; the scratchy, nails-on-a-chalkboard tension that punctuates Khan and Zinta’s every conversation hits the right nerves. But for Dev and Maya, the most I felt was a mild annoyance.

There’s not much, ironically, that binds Dev and Maya. She seems to be nothing more than a receptacle for his constant griping and fury at the lack of fulfilment in his life. It’s hard to root for a pair who seem to turn to each other and say, ‘Let’s be unhappy together forever.’ It would work if the movie were a satire, but Johar’s over-earnest tone and overdone attempts at poignancy needed much more to make this couple convincing.

Self-possessed and exuding a steely dignity, Zinta is quiet, assessing and ultimately generous. In stark contrast, Mukherji’s character, spends the last 40 minutes of the movie shedding tears almost non-stop, as though to atone for being the other woman. Even her inability to have children seems to bear down heavier on her, as though it’s a punishment.

Again, for 2006, maybe it was just enough that the ‘bad woman’ wasn’t a heavy drinker and smoker who eventually pays for her lifestyle with her life. But then, Dirty Picture came out a full five years later in 2011, and the heroine, while bold and sexually confident, eventually had to be shown on her deathbed. Rewatching KANK was a reminder that the trope of love outside marriage, for women at least, has not aged well, or aged at all!

There’s no doubt that extramarital love stories would be full of pain and tough decisions, but frankly, I’m tired of seeing ‘other women’ bearing the cost for their actions. Of the endless tears and walks in freezing rain and a sudden shift to I-don’t-deserve-anything-good clothing that symbolizes how terrible they’re feeling.

Again, any genuine intimacy between the lead characters would have been welcome, but as I watched the scene, I was thinking how John Abraham had more chemistry with his microphone in his 5-minute cameo as a DJ.

I like a good steamy extramarital lovemaking scene, and while Netflix has rated KANK a hefty 18+ for ‘SEX’, it seems we haven’t come much further than watching two flowers bump petals. Again, any genuine intimacy between the lead characters would have been welcome, but as I watched the scene, I was thinking how John Abraham had more chemistry with his microphone in his 5-minute cameo as a DJ.

There’s a good deal of love in the movie, but very little of it shows up between the lovers themselves. The whole tone of the movie seems to be Johar apologizing for making it in the first place and ensuring his audience knows that he realizes infidelity is wrong and comes with consequences. Which is why the film feels more like an opportunity missed rather than taken at the first offering.

Extramarital lust/love is never easy, that’s part of what it makes it an interesting story to tell. There’s violation of trust, betrayal of long-established bonds and eons of social stigma to navigate. From Wong Kar Wai’s beautifully stark In the Mood for Love to the darker realms of Unfaithful, movies have illuminated that there’s a fine line to be walked between celebrating the moral complexity of the extramarital, and sympathizing with pure feeling.

Bollywood is still getting into the habit of showing extra-marital and premarital love on screen, so I imagine the day we get an extramarital love story worth its weight is a good way off. Extramarital love in Bollywood is rarely seen as worthy of what is known as A-grade cinema. We get the overtly tawdry Murder or straight-up bhabhi-devar pornography. Love outside of marriage is necessarily conducted in the dark, in the shadows. While that could be part of its charm, it doesn’t reflect too well in the stories we tell.

For a love that broke so many barriers and hearts, Dev and Maya’s feelings never seem to bring out any change in their hearts or characters.

There is hope, though. I enjoyed the blossoming of feeling between Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul in this year’s Ajeeb Dastaans (coincidentally produced by Johar). Family Man, too, has a subtle, shimmering arc of growth and attraction in the relationship between Suchitra and her new boss.

That, truly, is where KANK disappoints me. For a love that broke so many barriers and hearts, Dev and Maya’s feelings never seem to bring out any change in their hearts or characters. It could have been a tale of two deeply embittered people coming together in an uneasy, but unbreakable bond. A wry, bitterly-ever-after. It could have been two people in pain unearthing tenderness in one another.

I’d love KANK to be made over. I’d want Amitabh Bachchan’s character to be female, for Dev and Maya to have conversations outside of bitching about their spouses. I’d definitely want more forbidden, lusty glances and touch – where’s the fun in a chaste extramarital affair! And I wouldn’t want Johar writing or directing because he has a fetish for drowning a good storyline in too many tears. But then again, there are no do-overs in art and cinema.

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